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The Mind Overdrive : When Thomas Bernhard Died, Austria Lost One of Its Bravest Authors : EXTINCTION, By Thomas Bernhard . Translated from the German by David McLintock (Knopf: $24; 326 pp.)

October 08, 1995|Benjamin Weissman | Benjamin Weissman is author of the story collection, "Dear Dead Person" (High Risk Books/Serpents Tail). He teaches writing at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena

Some Austrian citizens were relieved when Thomas Bernhard died, in particular humorless, government-worshiping androids (no different than our demented myopics) who insist they love the literary arts, just as long as they're sanitized and minty fresh. But many more Austrians and people throughout Europe and the United States were devastated by his passing. He was one of the bravest and most unusual (and prolific, thank God) novelists of the post-war world. Hyper-conservative factions in Austria didn't want to hear another word about Mr. H.; let's get on with the 20th Century, they say. Well, that's impossible, I say, especially if they press for silence and brush the bile under the carpet, as sugar coaters are apt to do.

Kurt Waldheim vacated the office of president a few years ago and the Nazi-sympathizing Jorg Haider is the leading candidate in 1996. Hitler turned everything in the German language-world into a reflection of himself and it has not gone away in the least. Not in America, nor over there. German craftsmanship, Austrian landscapes, et cetera, all reek of killing, and that is what Thomas Bernhard has written 30 books in 30 years attacking.

Bernhard is frequently compared with Samuel Beckett for his use of the repetitive lyrical sentence. Side by side they read like similar caged beasts, and on the surface share some cool stylistic qualities. Both were committed to a poetic nonsense (Beckett, the contemplative, ephemeral, Zenned-out monologuist; Bernhard, the long-suffering, fire-breathing, geopolitical rapper). But nowhere in Beckett will you find Bernhard's constant jolts of reality that occur either in his unflattering descriptions of certain despised fellow humans or his constant references to cities, hotels, restaurants, and other writers (Schopenhauer figures in most of his novels). Beckett's world was fictive inner universe, initiated by language. Bernhard tells a skewed version of his personal history over and over again, mixing autobiographical details with a fanatical subjectivity that's obsessed with exaggeration.

In "Extinction," his last and longest novel, Bernhard begins as he always does, attributing the entire text to one character. In this case it's an Austrian named Franz-Josef Murau, who lives in Rome. Murau, the character-narrator who Bernhard refers to only twice, in the first sentence of the novel and in the last, is a veiled Bernhard himself. Several times on every page Murau/Bernhard reminds the reader that he's telling all this to his student Gambetti, who he is tutoring in German literature, or to himself, often while he's staring out a window. These interruptions serve to objectify the text, a self-reflexive device to keep the reader aware of the narrative mechanics.

Murau returns to his native Austria, to the town of Wolfsegg, to handle the details of the death of his mother, father and brother, who died in an automobile accident. Contemplating their corpses sends him reeling in several directions, railing about all things Austrian: the Catholic Church, Nazis, opera, theater, German literature, architecture, photography, food, clothes, as well as a thorough history of each family member, including his two surviving sisters, one of whom is married to a man referred to a hundred times as "the wine cork manufacturer." He sets the record straight about his family; death shouldn't falsify what they were really like. "Extinction" lines up an array of grotesque figures and comically tears them to smithereens. Below are a few snippets.

"My sisters, it occurs to me, have a habit of hopping, a hysterical condition acquired in early childhood, which became one of their most striking characteristics. They hop all day long--they don't walk. They hop from the kitchen into the hall and back, into the drawing room and back. They really don't walk--they hop. I always see them hopping, like the children they were 30 years ago. Although they now walk normally, they always seem to me to be hopping. I cannot see them walk without imagining that they are still hopping as hysterically as they did when they were little girls with long pigtails. They are 40 and graying, but I still see them hopping when they are actually walking. When I thought I had finally escaped them they would suddenly turn up, hopping and giggling; they never left me in peace but drove me half demented with their giggling."

Thirteen pages later:

"Not wanting to be a doll in a doll's house, I soon removed myself from this doll's house, I told Gambetti, and its surroundings nothing more or less than a doll's world, ruled by my mother in the most ruthless and inhuman fashion. Gambetti laughed loudly, accusing me of monstrous overstatement and telling me that I was a typical Austrian pessimist with a grotesquely negative outlook."

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